Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Getting clear about Christianity

Its is good every now and then to preach (or write) a gospel outline, just to keep clear on the main things. The following is just that, structured around the key misconceptions people seem to have.

1) We wrongly assume that it is OK just to believe in God.
People have all manner of ideas about what God is like. To say “I believe in God” can be rather like the person who says “I once met Tony Blair” and then describes him as a 5 foot Irishman with one leg. The man’s name may have been Tony Blair, but he is certainly not the one who actually governed the country.

Jesus said: “Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him.”[1] His point was that if we truly know God, we will recognise him in Jesus himself. In other words, we need to believe in the God who is actually there. Not an impersonal being who has kick-started the universe yet is unconcerned with it now; but the deeply personal Creator whose power, love and sense of justice are so clearly seen in Jesus.

The first momentous truth of Christianity is that God has actually entered space time history as a man, and that he did so in order to put our world right. Jesus spoke of establishing an everlasting kingdom – a new world order that he would reign over and that would be free from suffering and death. He promised that he would judge and exclude all evil from it, and fill it with those he would raise from the dead and enable to live in perfect love for God and one-another.

Now this is all rather a lot for a twenty first century mind to accept. But God has not left us without evidence. The historical trustworthiness of the gospels is verifiable. The writers had nothing to gain except death for writing what they did. And in the gospels we find eyewitness accounts that record Jesus’ ability to do just what he promised - overcome evil, suffering and death. Above all else we see that he himself was raised from the dead, proving that he is the one to bring in the death-free world.

In 1944, Lt. Hiroo Onoda was sent by the Japanese army to the remote Philippine island of Lubang. His mission was to conduct guerrilla warfare during World War II. Unfortunately, he was never officially told the war had ended. So for 29 years, Onoda continued to live in the jungle, ready for when his country would again need his services and information. Eating coconuts and bananas and deftly evading searching parties he believed were enemy scouts, he hid in the jungle until finally emerging on March 19, 1972.

Surely all of us long for an end to the darkness of our world. Yet we continue as if God has done nothing to bring this about. More worryingly, like Onada, many live in a way that ignores or is even hostile to God, to the God who is there – the God that is Jesus. And this lead us to our next misconception.

2) We wrongly assume that we are good enough for God.
Jesus said “No-one is good except God alone.”[2] He was so honest about the evil within our hearts. We may not commit adultery, but our imaginations do. We may not murder, but we feel the sort of bitterness that can lead to it. And what of Jesus command to love God with all our mind, soul, heart and strength? What of his example of actually seeking to do good to those who hurt and hate us? Next to him, our best deeds are like 60 watt bulbs when the sun comes out - inconsequential.

Jesus’ promise to judge and exclude all evil from his kingdom is therefore a problem for us, because to some extent we all do evil. It was for this reason that he spoke so frankly about hell - the place of exclusion. He desperately warned that it would be the most horrific of existences imaginable, and something we should avoid at all costs.

This brings us to a second momentous truth about Christianity. Jesus was willing to experience this hell on our behalf. He spoke of his own death as a laying down of his life for all who would come to him. He taught that it was somehow equivalent to the punishment we deserve for our wrongdoing. Do read the next sentence slowly to grasp what that means: By knowingly going to such an excruciating death, Jesus lovingly and purposefully endured the justice and anger of God at human wrongdoing so that you and I might not have to endure it ourselves.

Now that is good news. God is the God of the second chance. He is the God of the fresh start. This is why, despite being our judge, Jesus was still keen to spend time with those who were dishonest and immoral. It is why he was able to say he had come for those who are spiritually sick rather than healthy. It is why he was able to boldly hand out God’s forgiveness to those who sought it from him.

Here again we must slow down to take in, because this forgiveness is the heart of Christ's message. In the early church, the first physical act of faith was to be baptised, to be washed in water. It symbolised that the first spiritual act of faith was to bring all the grime of our lives to God for cleansing. Jesus taught that we are then treated by God as if we were clean, even though we so clearly aren't. We then have his acceptance. We are reconciled to him like hostile enemies to a benevolent King, or wayward children to a perfect Father.

And doesn’t all this bring relief? At times all of us experience guilt and shame. We may suppress it as soon as we can. Yet its presence shows that we know only too well that we will not be able to stand on judgement day. This means that we should be rightly fearful of facing Jesus. But for those who come to him, that fear can be turned to joy. And so to our third misconception.

3) We wrongly assume that being a Christian is just to uphold Christian values.
I hope you have already seen that it is so much more than that. Jesus calls all people to: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”[3] Sadly this brings only images of “the-end-is-nigh” sandwich boards in London. But the word “repent” refers to “a change of mind that leads to a change of life.” It is to truly believe in Jesus and so act accordingly: It is to believe that he has been raised from the dead and so is God’s Son, King and Judge. It is therefore to call on him as judge for mercy and forgiveness whenever we do wrong. And it is then to submit to him as King and so bring our entire life under his rule.

Centuries ago, everyone thought that the earth was the centre of the solar system and that the planets and sun itself revolved around us. A revolution in scientific thinking then occurred that caused a revision of all text books. Copernicus discovered that in reality the sun was the centre, and everything revolved around it.

The third momentous truth of Christianity is that the resurrection of Jesus means an even greater revolution in thinking needs to take place. We all live as if we are the centre of the universe. We believe what we want to believe and behave as we want to be behave. Yet in reality, it is the Son who is the centre, and we and all we think or do must therefore revolve around him. Some denied and opposed Copernicus’ theories. But that made them no less true. And just as all recognise that from the vantage point of today, so one day people will see they were wrong about Jesus.

Of course repentance can be hard. It really does mean changing the way we live: It means being part of God's new humanity and so living by the ways of the world to come. It means forgiving our enemies, cleaning up our language, purifying our sex lives and reforming our work-practices. It means joining a local church where the Bible is well taught, and giving time, money and effort to further Jesus’ purposes. It means caring for the needy and standing up for the oppressed, trying to tell others what we've come to know, and even enduring hostility in return.

Yet in all this, the one thing we must be very clear on, is that repentance is not an attempt to somehow earn or deserve God's acceptance, as many assume. No, it is simply the evidence that we really believe Jesus is who he claimed, that we are sincere in our sorrow at sin and that we want to share in the life of his kingdom.

And can I reassure you here, that repentance really is quite wonderful? Jesus promised that obeying his teaching would “set us free.”[4] It liberates us from the expectations of the world and the addiction of our own nature to what is wrong. He spoke of dying so that we can “have life in all its fullness”[5] – the wholeness of the truly human life, flourishing because it is lived as God created it to be lived. He welcomed his disciples with the words “peace be with you,”[6] declaring the love and acceptance of God that the repentant Christian can experience.

We read that the response of Jesus’ first followers to all this was quite simply “joy.”[7] This is the essence of the Christian life. No matter how hard life gets, the true Christian can know an inner contentment and delight in personally knowing God, marvelling at his ways, looking forward to his kingdom, honouring him with their life, and being a member of his family the church.

How then do I become a Christian?
We have seen that this entails three things:
  1. Believing that God has raised Jesus from the dead, and that Jesus is therefore God’s Son, King and Judge.
  2. Relying on God for mercy and forgiveness for all you have done or will do wrong.
  3. Seeking to obey Jesus’ teaching in every respect.

To those who repent in this way, Jesus promises forgiveness, everlasting life in his kingdom and his Holy Spirit to help us to live for him. In the light of this, can I urge you not to delay in responding as Jesus asks? You may find the following prayer useful:

Lord God,
I thank you for your great love in sending Jesus to die for me.
I believe that you raised him from the dead and that he is your Son and King and Judge.
Please forgive all the wrong I have done or will do, every sin I know of and don’t know of.
I commit myself now to obeying Jesus as my King.
Please fill me with you Holy Spirit to help me live for him.
Amen.

[1] John 5v23
[2] Mark 10v18
[3] Matthew 4v17
[4] John 8v31-32
[5] John 10v10
[6] Luke 24v36
[7] Luke 24v52